James 4:4 “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
From the context, it is unlikely that James is accusing these people of literal adultery. Instead, the concept is that our relationship with God is similar to marriage and if we turn from Him, we are similar to adulteresses, which is the term older translations use instead of adulterous people.
There are many places we can go to show that the relationship between God and His people is closely akin to marriage. Eph. 5, for instance, discusses the marriage relationship and then says “This mystery is great: but I speak in regard of Christ and of the church.” (vs. 32). Everything he was saying about the relationship between husbands and wives relates to Christ and the Church. The general concept of the union between God and His people is much older. E.g. Isa. 54:5 “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” and Jer. 2:2 "Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” and Jer. 31:32 “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD”. So, the covenant relationship between God and His people is like a marriage, and when His people break the covenant it hurts God like a husband would be hurt if his wife was cheating. That exact comparison is used throughout the prophets to describe God’s yearning for His people and eventually His vengeful wrath. Nowhere is it brought out as vividly as in Hosea.
Hosea was told to marry a woman who would cheat on him. It became obvious that she was doing exactly that: his last son is named “not mine”. She leaves him, seems to become a practicing whore, and he has to buy her back. Hosea’s pain in dealing with this was illustrative of God’s pain in dealing with the nation of Israel and his preaching combines pathos, anger, and love in a unique way. When we think of the adultery of Israel we usually think of them going after other gods rather than Jehovah (or Yahweh if you prefer). Hosea shows us that there are a lot more ways to cheat on God than just idolatry. That list is where I want to spend some time.
Of course, Hosea starts with the idolatry. Hosea 2:13 & 4:12 “And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD. . . My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore”. If instead of worshipping your God, you go after other gods, what can it be called than cheating? Is there anything I put ahead of God? Anything I worship more than I worship Him?
God was also angry that Israel did not trust Him to protect them, making alliances with foreign kingdoms. Hosea 5:13 & 7:11-13a “When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. . . Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria. As they go, I will spread over them my net; I will bring them down like birds of the heavens; I will discipline them according to the report made to their congregation. Woe to them, for they have strayed from me!” When the nation saw it was in danger of conquest, they didn’t turn to God. They asked every other powerful nation nearby for assistance. Men, just how emasculated would you feel if you found out your wife trusted your neighbor for security more than she trusted you? Isn’t that a type of betrayal? Do I rely on anything other than God’s blessings? Modern medicine is great, but is my faith in my doctor greater than my faith in God? Do I trust the weatherman more than God? Do I rely on anything more than God?
In the context of His people being adulteresses, God rebukes Israel for relying on their own strength instead of relying on Him. Hosea 8:14 “For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds.” Israel was rich and Judah well fortified. They would be just fine. They didn’t need God! God promises to show them differently. This is one we can easily relate to. We are told to build up 401ks and Roth IRAs and if we do so we will be secure in our retirement years because of our wealth. Really? Do I trust in God or wealth? We should, of course, be good stewards of the blessings God gives us, but what do I rely on, wealth or God? Do I think I am smart enough, strong enough or determined enough to handle life on my own, or am I willing to humble myself before God? Self-reliance is a failure to rely on God. That lack of trust, God considers adultery.
God also reprimands Israel for associating too closely with worldly people. Hos 7:8-9a “Ephraim mixes himself with the peoples; Ephraim is a cake not turned. Strangers devour his strength”. Not only is Israel breaking the Law by this mixing with Gentiles, but doing so drains away the nation’s strength. God has never been in favor of the close association of His people with the people of the world because of that draining effect. Too much time spent with worldly people inures us to their sin. We don’t even notice anymore the things that used to make us gasp. We slowly drift away from God. A wife who slowly drifts from her husband often finds herself in adulterous situations. God is not pleased when His people do this.
At base, adultery is the breaking of a promise. In wedding ceremonies husbands and wives vow themselves to each other. Wedding vows involve more than just not sleeping with other people. We stay together, support each other, don’t let life’s bumps force us apart. There are many ways to break these wedding vows. Similarly, God’s covenant with His people involves more than just not worshipping other gods and He feels that any breaking of the covenant is adulterous. Hosea 4:1-3 “Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.” All these sins of the people constituted breaking the Law that God had given them. They had vowed to follow His Law as part of the covenant (Ex. 24) and they were breaking their vow.
God continues His lament in Hosea 6:6-10 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked with blood. As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests band together; they murder on the way to Shechem; they commit villainy. In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing; Ephraim's whoredom is there; Israel is defiled.” Here the sins of the people are clearly called whoredom. Whenever we sin against God, we are breaking our covenant with Him and, in essence, committing adultery.
Hosea 8:1-5 “Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed my covenant and rebelled against my law. To me they cry, "My God, we—Israel—know you." Israel has spurned the good; the enemy shall pursue him. They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of innocence?”